A Room Called Earth

Embracing our differences (Melbourne, Australia, presumably present-day): Three reasons to choose A Room Called Earth, Australian writer Madeleine Ryan’s debut, to usher in a new literary year:

  1. What better time in recent history to read a novel about embracing our differences?
  2. What better time in our quarantined lives to reflect on what it means to be alone without feeling lonely?
  3. Combine #1 and 2 and you have the ingredients for a unique novel about a unique character who defies categorization. She has many strengths but is socially challenged.

Ryan has crafted a provocative novel set within 24 hours, seen through the eyes of a magnetic narrator who expresses herself in honest, no-filters narration and sharpened sensuality: a young woman, probably in her late twenties, early thirties, who lives alone yet has created an inner, earthy sanctum inside the rooms of her home and mind. She controls how much she wants us to know, or not. For starters, she never tells us her name. Perhaps to represent the universe of young women who wish to be valued for who they are, not by societal expectations and stereotypes.

What the protagonist wants to tell us, and show us, is how she feels and acts when invited to a party in light of her social difficulties. Her behavior is not black-or-white. Alternating between the party and her secluded home life, we get a fuller, complex picture.

The novel is aimed at rejecting labels, stereotypes, assumptions. The major one is not labeling her as high-functioning on the autism spectrum (ASD, autism spectrum disorder), since that label stigmatizes and lumps people into one mold, rather than see them as individuals.

Ryan practices what she preaches in the many articles she writes, advocating for the “richness of neurodiversity” as opposed to “neurotypical”. Her novel sticks to the same theme: “embrace who we are, in all our permutations.” And, when we do, expect to “see universes beyond our own that we never knew existed—and that are more peaceful, loving, joyous, and accepting than anything we could have ever dreamed of.”

One of the pleasures of reading this clever novel is we don’t look at the protagonist through our eyes, but through hers. We don’t need to know the full sweep of her life as we can learn a lot about her through the lens of the party. Which she points out she’s “legitimately allowed to be there,” as if the label would exclude her. 

Parents rightfully argue, and studies show, that a clinical diagnosis of ASD is of vital importance for early childhood interventions to dramatically improve the long-term outlook of autistic children. We wonder then what the narrator was like as a child? She tells us she has a therapist today, but what were her influences and supports in childhood? She mentions her grandmother, but barely says anything about her parents except they’re gone – until after the party, toward the end. 

Another question raised is what purpose does a label serve for high-functioning adults? She’s intelligent, well-informed, independent, and has many healthy interests: nature lover, environmentalist; animal lover; social justice for Australian Aboriginals and prisoners; exotic flowers and trees in her country, including the garden she nurtures; food, stars, moonlight walks. Keep in mind she never tells us she has ASD; her publisher does. Her refuge is “so psychedelic and sensual.” This is not unhappiness speaking to us.

But, she lacks a human bond. The party gives her a chance to do something about that. A tall order as she’s looking for the same “very grounding influence” she feels at home extraordinarily attached to her cat, who provides her with “a sense of wholeness that I rarely experience anywhere, or with anyone.”

Naming her cat Porkchop is notable since it’s the only name in the novel. Animals provide unconditional love, but people haven’t. She says she chose the name as a symbolic gesture since she’s a die-hard vegetarian – organic, “anti-oxidant-rich” food – that she treats as “sacred,” lighting candles to honor the sustenance and pleasure food brings, and to heighten the experience. She’s a pleasure-seeker, hoping to find some pleasure at the party. Does she find it?

A Room Called Earth is a breath of fresh literary air. It encourages us to think about the positive effect of making a sincere effort to understand, respect, and appreciate people’s abilities and gifts, rather than ignore or undervalue them based on bias or preconceived notion.

Take, for example, the question of whether we perceive our narrator as lonely? She tells us she loves herself and accepts herself. And yet, she candidly recognizes that “connection with my own species has become difficult.” Note become, implying she wasn’t always like that. What happened?

She mentions an ex-boyfriend, unnamed too perhaps to symbolize all male relationships that haven’t worked out. He’s cited since their relationship lasted longer than any other, ten months, which surprises her. Surprises us too given how self-aware she is of her social “struggles,” yet she believes the problem was him not her.

Despite social challenges, the narrator is looking forward to the party, yet conversation is difficult. Neurologically caused? Or personality-driven because she desires relationships on her own terms? She’s not interested in superficial connections; she wants meaningful ones.

We’ve been assuming the narrator is attractive. A man at the party confirms that, telling her she’s “very pretty.” A bona fide feminist, she doesn’t want to be valued for her physicality, “fantasy of womanhood,” rather her thoughts, feelings, and intense spirit. She views the people at the party judgmentally, cynically, wittily, also poignantly. The ridiculousness of the partygoers dialogue pops up when you least expect it jarring us, but her impressions resonate.

Our narrator isn’t shy. In fact, she loves calling attention to herself. Ryan wants us to be prepared for someone who has a mind of her own and speaks literally. The party invitation has her fantasizing about what she’ll wear, opening the novel with this catchy line:

“I decided to wear a kimono and high heels to the party because I wanted people to see me in a kimono and high heels at the party.”

No doubt the attention-getting outfit gets noticed. She desires that: “My dream is to leave people wondering, and nothing more. It’s safe, sexy, and I want to live there forever. Mystery is my favorite accessory.” She is mysterious, in an enchanting way.

Setting the novel in Toorak, a wealthy suburb of Melbourne, Australia adds another dimension to the protagonist’s mystique. Her neighborhood, called The Beverly Hills of Melbourne, raises another question: Who’s supporting her independent lifestyle? She doesn’t lack financially, indulging in luxuries and yet doesn’t work. We assume she’s inherited the home. Again, we don’t know if our assumption is correct until the end, after she leaves the party when an event happens that leads her to reveal some more about her parents. 

Sometimes the narrator’s mind is all over the place. Neurologically overwhelmed? Or because she thinks deeply about a lot of things and is acutely observant? The brisk chapters serve to not exhaust the narrator, nor us. Quite the contrary, as this is a thought-provoking, page-turner ideal for book clubs.

How can you not love a novel about someone who tells us over and over that’s it okay, actually a good thing, to love yourself and accept yourself? The first step to loving and accepting others.


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The Offing

An author who also writes poetry magnifies the beauty of an unlikely friendship between young and old that changes their lives (from Durham, northeast England, south to Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire; WWII aftermath, 1946): If ever there was a year when reading collectively saved the luckiest of us, 2020 is it. So it’s especially fitting that this final post of the year has one of the most satisfying closures for two very different characters – age, experience, personality, gender, social class – and for readers.

The Offing by British award-winning writer Benjamin Myers is only the second of his seven novels published in the US. A beautiful, wise, and poetic novel that looks back on one life-changing summer when a friendship – between sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard and Dulcie Piper, nearing sixty – blossomed, taking the young man under her wings when she needed him as much as he needed her. But she doesn’t let on that she’s terribly lonely, and that buried underneath her zest for life is a terrible sadness.

Robert narrates this poignant story, looking back at their relationship when he’s now old, to a summer when he was coming-of-age and Dulcie changed the trajectory of his life. On page three, he tells us, “I cling to poetry as I cling to life,” clueing us in how poetry made all the difference. Actually, the first clue to the importance of poetry in the novel, and for Myers, is when he introduces the story with a poem by a 19th century British poet, John Clare, a “quintessential romantic poet.” Clare, like young Robert, came from a poor family, loved nature, and was a romantic “daydreamer.” Clare resurfaces later when Dulcie introduces Robert to poetry.

When Robert tells Dulcie poetry is not for “people like me” – “coal folk” – she replies, “trust me when I say that everything you’ve felt has been experienced by another human being,” triggering her quest to find him “poetry you can relate to” from her extensive library. Poetry is among the many things he discovers at an uncertain age during an “age of uncertainty.” WWII may have ended, but food was still being rationed and people were downtrodden by the enormity of their losses. But Robert is restless, and also aware “life was out there, ready and waiting to be eaten in greedy gulps.”

The Offing is also fitting to close out the year with for a blog passionate about enchanted prose by an author who lets us know in the Acknowledgments that he has a “passion for the written word,” so much so he literally wrote the novel longhand in libraries. The novel is full of poetic writing since Meyers is a poet with several poetry collections to his name. A diverse writer and journalist, he’s also penned a non-fiction book, Under the Rock: The Poetry of Place, which I’d love to read since it likely contains the same marvelous, atmospheric nature writing and strong sense of place this novel has.

When Robert sets off from Durham, England (where the author is from), he’s ripe for escaping this northern region tied to Britain’s long history of coal mining. His father is a coal-miner, expects him to follow in his footsteps.

Northern English counties in 1851
By MRSC (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Robert’s background resonates with all people whose dreams and desires have been stuck in a cycle of repression and poverty without the resources to break free. Although he’s not an activist, Robert wants a freer life, one not limited in opportunities. Dulcie shows him a way, feeding his hunger, physically, sensually, and emotionally, because of who she is and what she offers.

Roberts dreams of the sea. The novel indicates Dulcie’s seaside village is in North Yorkshire. In a Guardian article, the idyllic village is apparently Robin Hood’s Bay (suggest you save for later as this link has spoilers). The contrast between his bleak homeland and the seaside landscape awakens him. Not nearly as much as Dulcie stirs his senses and spirit.

Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire, England
By Snapshots Of The Past (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

When Robert sets off by foot all he has is a backpack and a deep appreciation for nature and wildness. The southerly path he wanders along takes him through a mystical, lush landscape of rivers, moors, and bright green valleys. So much “newness of the unfamiliar was intoxicating.” Since England is a country with a “right to roam,” he ends up crossing Dulcie’s property, which includes a well-lived in stone cottage, an abandoned shed, and an untamed, abundant garden that’s so overgrown it blocks the view of the water. Unimaginable to him.

Robert had no intention of lingering long at Dulcie’s home, but she’s a force to be reckoned with, graciously and convincingly initially offering him nettle tea in her garden. The first of much wine and lobster, and other overindulgences new to him. With her “heroic tolerance for alcohol”; love of luxury foods, particularly lobster; drifting music; an endearing servant-like dog aptly named Butler; and eye-opening conversations, he ends up staying the entire season. In return, he takes care of her unwieldy garden and does other odd jobs, anything but coal mining. As he grows comfortable with this colorful woman’s provocative words and declarations, he engages more and becomes invested in their relationship. This was the summer when time was measured only by the “clock of green growth, and marked by the simple routine of working, eating, swimming, sleeping” – and discovering poetry that spoke to him. “Poetry had been one more way of keeping the working men and women in their place,” but “poems belong to the world.” 

Dulcie has a lot to say. But if it weren’t for the deepening bond between the two, what she kept hidden would have remained a mystery. While we do learn about the profound secrecy, thanks to Robert’s perseverance and sensitivity, there’s still so much more we want to know about this extravagant, bohemian character who’s been friends with legendary writers, poets, artists, musicians. The lyrical writing makes it easy to envision a prequel to this novel about her full life pre-Robert. Cinematic, we can also envision a movie. 

The alluring dialogue flows back and forth between these two opposites: Robert is the shy, innocent, respectful young man from “a place where brickwork was dyed black by soot-smoke and whose skies billowed with coke dust.” Dulcie is the one who lives in an iconic British village who “always chose pleasure at all costs.” “A cajoler,” “a prodder,” and a “perfect mentor,” she sees something idealistic, rebellious, and adventuresome in Robert that she embraced when she was young. Unorthodox, she rejects conventions, authority, control. “Let’s cock a snook to time, for time is just another set of self-imposed arbitrary boundaries designed to capture and control.” The fact that she possesses such “literary dexterity” is Myers’ way of showing us the power of prose. Robert and Dulcie also show us the power of mentoring.

“Travel is search for the self,” Dulcie confirms for Robert. Fortunate that she traveled the world, we take pleasure in armchair traveling at a time when our travel options are limited.

“Whatever happens, make sure you live,” she coaches. Just “believe in yourself, Robert. That’s all it takes.” If only it were that simple. But it’s a powerful, uplifting message sent during another uncertain historical time when life is also vividly precious.

Wishing you safe, happy holidays during the year that was so different than any other. Thanks for reading. See you in 2021.


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Meditations with Cows: What I’ve Learned from Daisy, the Dairy Cow Who Changed My Life

Dairy cow whisperer – who’ll change the way you think about cows, including their role in reducing global warming (Reflections on more than ten years of raising dairy cows in Wyoming): How many teenagers “dreamed of having a dairy cow?” like Shreve Stockton did. Or were voted “Most Likely to Wake Up in a Strange Place?” like Stockton tells us in the opening sentence of her intimate and evocative new memoir on being in the 1%. Not the 1% of wealthiest Americans, but the tiny fraction of “grass-finished” 100% organic dairy cow farmers among an industry dominated by the “Big Four”: “concentrated animal feeding operations” or CAFOs. Stockton may still be unique from other one percenters. She’s had the most intimate and awesome experiences with dairy cows.

Between Stockton’s unusual dairy cow raising story, her poetic prose, stunning photographs, and eye-opening, timely information, Meditations with Cows is a beautiful, inside and out, meaningful read. 

At twenty-eight, Stockton’s dream and high school prediction came true in a small rural town in Wyoming, a world far away from New York City where she’d lived and thirty miles from any town bigger. A world she got lucky to have found for someone who feels “just enough is everything.” She started off living in a bare-boned, 12 x 12 foot cabin on a 40-acre piece of property leased by someone she met walking on the side of the road, when he – Mike – was in a pickup truck. Daisy is the cow who changed her life; Mike made that happen. Her story is full of new experiences that transformed her wanderlust life in profound ways, learning to live “beyond the noise.” In the moment, “wholly present.”

Daisy, who graces the cover, was her first dairy cow love. She’s mostly a Brown Swiss American breed, mixed with some of Britain’s Jersey breed. Both are known for their abundant milk production. Stockton became in “awe of the intimacy of milking”; of “how you could rest your cheek and forehead against her warm belly and milk”; of “farm fresh milk” that was “ecstasy in liquid form”; and how Daisy’s “maternal instincts bloomed like a Wyoming sunrise: epic, encompassing, brilliant.”

It’s not just Daisy’s striking looks, but her friendliness, intelligence, intuitiveness, and loyalty that Stockton, and the reader, marvel at; Stockton spends a lot of time “marveling” at being loved by her giant and gentle cows. We marvel too at the marvelous pictures of the author lying in a golden field resting, meditating, with her arms spread out across Daisy’s big white-blond body, and stretched out across the top of a 2,000 pound, black cow she adopted, with her cowgirl boots hanging down his rear. She named him Baby, but he gained 100 pounds a month so by the time he was nine months old or 1000 pounds his name was changed to Sir Baby. Some of the other gorgeous photographs sprinkled throughout can be found in these links: http://honeyrockdawn.com/category/daisy/, and https://shrevestockton.com/wordpress/#about2. Stockton isn’t just a literary artist, she’s also a professional photographer.

Milking Daisy twice a day, the author soon found herself with far more gallons of milk than she could possibly drink or share. This led her into the dairy world of making yogurt, buttermilk, and butter that “gleamed like sunlight.” 

Milking Daisy taught the author how fundamental trust was to the process, reinforcing the unique human-animal bond. Daisy taught her the true meaning of meditation: a state of peacefulness when your mind is free of the daily stresses of life, much like how we feel when we go on vacation or spend time in nature. For us, these are escapes; for Stockton this is a good portion of her life.

Stockton wants us to know a lot about cows, starting with the basics: the word cow. She explains the differences between adult males and females: a male that can breed (bulls) versus one that can’t anymore (steers); a virgin female (heifer) compared to a female who’s birthed a calf called a cow. To the rest of us, they’re cows, but the distinction matters. Daisy was a young heifer when she met Sir Baby a bull. They bred Frisco and Fiona, whose mixed genes turned her into an attractive “strawberry” color. The bond intensifies when you’ve observed, assisted in their births, and raised them with “love while we can.”

Mike is also seen as a growing relationship. The two are like dairy cow soul-mates. After he lost his daughter, he turned his grief into something restorative. He too cares deeply and differently about the life of a cow. Some are Special Projects he never sells, letting them die of old age, which is not done with “tens of thousands of cattle to upward of a hundred thousand cattle at any given time” packed into pens without regard for their health, freedom, and safety, “a reflection of how the rest of our economy works.” 

Still, there’s so many more cows raised that cannot possibly be kept. Ethical questions arise as to how to reach scale humanly. Stockton cannot bear to have her cows spend their last days in confinement, so she entered another new world: the risky business of selling organically farmed beef, forming her own company called Star Brand Beef. Her journey and success are documented in these pages, along with an alarming picture of how most of the cattle business operates. Risky as a writer too when you’re as passionate and well-read as Stockton is, to avoid sounding overly preachy. She’s an activist at heart, who wants to back up her opinions with facts. She does so by quoting a wealth of resources, referenced in a substantial bibliography that shows she’s as devoted to health and the environment as she is to her dairy cows. By weaving technical data and suggestions about doing things differently in between scene-after-scene of fascinating stories about raising Daisy, her babies, and other cows (like 3M and Six), Stockton has found an effective way to pull off her human-animal stories and her environmentalism.

Of course, not every scene is Pollyanna. Plenty of scary emergencies that require fortitude and wherewithal, such as a difficult birthing when a calf is breech and the vet is unable to arrive on time, when life is on the edge. Death and grief come too, but there’s never a time when the author regrets. It’s all been worth it.

Wyoming’s weather is also a formidable presence. The temperature drops to minus 10, 20 below zero in the winter, and pounding rain in the middle of a 100 degree summer can be treacherous when the dirt where the cows roam gets too deep and muddy like quicksand, described in a vivid rescue.

The memoir also provides lessons in appreciating solitude “as absolutely divine.” When “it was impossible to feel lonely while lying on the earth or beneath the explosion of stars.” When you’re “surrounded by too much life to feel alone.”

The memoir is also about belonging. “When you belong to a place, you are in a relationship with the land. Being in a relationship requires attention.” Stockton’s voice is one of gratitude for “the interconnectedness of everything.”

Stockton’s transformation went from “What can I get?” to “What can I give?” to “How can we achieve together?” The million-dollar question we’re all wondering about. The answer gave her “an almost superhuman endurance.” What could it mean for the rest of us?


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A Single Swallow

Ghostly memories of love and war (Yuehu village, southeast China, 1943-1945; told 70 years later): A Single Swallow is only the second of nine novels by acclaimed Chinese-born author Zhang Ling1 translated into English. Translations represent only 3% of the total American market. The American Literary Translation Association’s database shows Amazon Crossing publishes the lion’s share, along with mostly Independent Publishers and a few imprints of the major publishing houses? Why so few?

Best answered by experts within the publishing industry, but from this reviewer’s experience the simple answer is whether a book is accessible, or not. This year, I identified one book, translated from Swedish, to rave about, but gave up on translated books from Poland, Japan, Brazil, Colombia, Ukraine, and Turkey, finding them too difficult to read. So it’s with great pleasure to introduce Ling’s accessible, lyrical, and unusual historical fiction offering a rare look inside a top secret mission when America and China worked together after Japan invaded China.

Told through the voices of three men, two American and one Chinese, who love the same young Chinese woman, the novel is unique for both historical and literary reasons. The two woven together powerfully.

The forcefulness lies in the stark contrast between writing so affectingly about two extreme circumstances and emotions: the brutality of war “during strange times, when half the world was on fire” versus the beauty of three men loving a courageous yet fragile, stoic, resilient young woman who’s been the victim of unspeakable horrors and hardships. Written with such eloquence, although reading about the horrors of war is not easy to read. But not because we’re not able to understand the meaning of the translated prose.

Ah Yan is the woman at the center of the novel. Her name means Swallow in Chinese. Swallow is a perfect name for her as she’s so thin, bony, and small she seems bird-like. She privately bears her grief and sorrow, but over the course of the novel we see her strength, “compassion, intuition, and calmness under stress,” and the extraordinary lengths she goes to care for others. That in order “to save herself,” she had to first learn how to become someone “saving others.”

The three men’s voices show “three sides of her person,” alternating in chapters. What’s also unusual is we never hear her voice directly. We don’t often read novels told second-hand, through the second person point of view. Without hearing her side, we don’t have the full story, which we assume is intentional. She’s real but not fully within our grasp.

This dream-like quality to Ah Yan fits the surreal use of magical realism for delivering the men’s stories about her and the war. That’s not such an easy thing to pull off either. Since “the memory of war isn’t the same as the war itself,” mixing reality with the otherworldly is an effective way to make their stories, and hers, feel ghostly as the ghosts of war haunt lives forever.

The Sino-American Cooperative Agreement (SACO) established a “high-intensity,” US Navy training camp in an impoverished and secluded village near the southeastern coast of China, which is where the novel takes place.

US intelligence officer teaching Chinese how to use radio
via Wikimedia Commons

Yuhu was the name of the historical village the author calls Yuehu. “Surrounded by mountains, making it less likely to be attacked, but was still one hundred miles from the area of the Japanese occupation and the sea, putting it within marching distance.” That long distance, combined with a formidable terrain, is where “Americans learned the real meaning of the word ‘walking,’” which they could not have done without the assistance of the Chinese, who knew the land. The primary purpose of the military operation was spying, intelligence gathering, and collecting other information on the enemy, not hand-to-hand combat, but there’s one devastating military incident that’s dramatically described as if the author had been there herself. This scene alone speaks to the veracity of Ling’s research, which included visiting the site and speaking with three Chinese men who’d been part of SACO.

Photo courtesy of Amazon Publishing

The three fictional male characters all heard the surrender speech of the Emperor of Japan on the radio in 1945 that ended the war, known as the Jewel Voice Broadcast. Before they said their goodbyes, they vowed to annually visit this indelible place of memories after they passed away. Which is why we hear their voices seven decades later.

Each loved Ah Yan differently, so each called her a different name: 

Pastor Billy: A US missionary also practicing medicine. He bears witness to Ah Yan’s saving, healing, and maturity “that would’ve taken decades during peacetime.” A fatherly figure twenty years old than Ah Yan, whom he meets when she’s nineteen, he calls her Stella, which he explains “means star,” envisioning her future will shine so she’ll no longer have anything to fear. It will become painfully clear to the reader what crime against her humanity was inflicted on her. To make sure her future will be safer, he teaches her basic medical skills that she soaks up like a sponge, so when the war is over and she’ll have to return to her village she’ll be respected and needed in her community rather than shunned upon. An example of helping us understand a different culture’s traditional norms.

Ian Ferguson: A military training instructor from Chicago, his job is Gunner’s Mate, because he teaches combat skills. We understand a lot about what he does and how the war is going through evocative letters he writes to his mother and other family. The letters are provided via the US Naval archives, which makes the fiction feel real, especially since his fictional commander, Commander Miles, was a real historical figure. His full name was Milton Edward Miles. Even the Commander’s dog, the author calls Ghost, makes his way into his story. Ian called Ah Yan Wende, which means wind in English. To him, she’s “perfection in the moment,” equating her with “the power of the wind, its freedom and its rage.”

Liu Zhaohu, code name 635: From the same village as Ah Yan, Sishiyi Bu, he calls her by her given name. Their fathers are brothers; his father works for her father’s tea plantation. He became a soldier to save China from the Japanese. “Patriotism is born in the mind, a few steps from the heart, but was not yet a heart-wrenching pain,” he says, an example of how the prose of a wartime novel can be poetic. Ferguson is his teacher.

The novel could have still been inaccessible to American audiences if the translation wasn’t as superb as it is. Ling deserves all the credit for communicating the universal language of love and war, but credit is also due to Shelly Bryant, the translator, based on how vividly and movingly the novel reads. Bryant is an Oklahoma native who lives in Shanghai and Singapore, nominated for several translation prizes. She’s also a writer of novels, short stories, and poetry.

The brief Epilogue is brilliant, intensifying the feeling of whether this is a piece of history, or fictional? Together, a stirring, secreted piece of American-Chinese WWII history showing us that “facing death is a form of bravery, but so is facing life.”


1 Zhang Ling lives in Toronto, Canada, but was in Wenzhou, China during the COVID-19 lockdown. The subject of her next book, a work of non-fiction. 

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One Night Two Souls Went Walking

Down-to-earth in seeking the otherworldly, spiritual being (most likely set in New England in the 2010s): Looking for a unique book for these unique times? Something that wraps you in kindness, selflessness, and faith, but you don’t have to be religious for it to speak to you? Suggestion: a novel full of grace, with prose that’s not just literal but figurative, even in its poetic title, One Night Two Souls Went Walking. 

Ellen Cooney is a provocative writer. What could be more provocative than opening her tenth novel on page one, line one with this elusive, existential question: “What is a soul?”

Cooney taught creative writing for years at a number of colleges in Boston, Massachusetts. She thought she’d be a poet or a playwright when she grew up. Like poetry and plays, she says so much in the fewest words needed – a little over two-hundred pages– and does so with warmth and wisdom without coming across as preachy or judgmental.

To do that, she’s created a unique character – the narrator – who embraces all the goodness, kindness, and empathy we wish everyone had. She’s chosen not to name her, except to refer to her by the only name that matters: Reverend. Ever since this extraordinary young woman (in her thirties) was a child she imagined fairy-tale-like visions of the meaning of life. She didn’t have words for what she dreamt or witnessed in “a flicker, a glimmer,” so she called it “the other thing.” That’s when something happened in fleeting moments in her everyday life that shined lightness and beauty; that told her there’s more to life than the ordinary. Something amazing and mysterious. Everyone in her big, loud family was too caught up with their athletic lives so they treated her as different, though they do love and care about her. “It can be lonely for me in my family,” this noble girl felt because they were all busy with sports while she was asking about souls. The story she tells spans about six years of her life tending to broken souls, feeling hers was too.

Our narrator also asks, “Can a soul speak to another soul?” Through a series of vignettes about the people who touched her life over six years as the chaplain of a medical center when she worked the night shift (due to budget cuts), the loneliest of hours, she shows us she’s blessed with an exceptional gift of finding a way to speak to another soul; her boss, whom she calls Head, told her the same thing.

In this medical setting, the souls she tells us something defining about them are sick, elderly, victims of disasters, and dying. Mostly, she leaves them unnamed too, identifying them instead by their interests, professions, or what they look like. A simple yet personalized characteristic. These descriptors, and the briefness of chapters, emphasize their encounters may have been brief but they’re not forgotten. Cooney does a marvelous job of weaving them together, as memories of them pop up in the chaplain’s thoughts. Yes, we remember you.

The effect is this doesn’t feel like a short story collection. Rather, a poignant, life-affirming novel connecting people from all walks of life who are sad, lonely, have regrets, hard lives, were discriminated against, who have a common, urgent need or longing to find peace from their psychic pain, before many leave this world.

The poetic title refers to two souls. There’s several versions of who these two souls might be. Scenes that actually happened, and an especially vivid one that’s dream-like, mystical, which fits this abstract, invisible notion of a soul. And, of course, there’s a collection of souls the Reverend has been summoned to sit by their bedside, or be with a family member in the Consolation Room, where she metaphorically walks with them as she comforts them.

These souls include: an older, black, proud librarian who worked herself up from a hidden person toiling in a basement promoted to reference librarian where she was seen, needed, and respected. When the minister meets her she’d been content living in an assisted living facility until she had a bad fall and was admitted to the medical center, where she conceded she “might need attention to my soul here.” A demanding lawyer in his fifties whose life depended on facts, evidence, who woke up during a medical procedure and thought he’d arrived at the “roof of the world.” A teenage boy, Surfer, who had a tragic accident that paralyzed him, with whom she patiently sat with until she gained his trust, helping him see waves as “holy,” that it was all not in vain; Doctor Brown Hair who confided something was “hiding in my soul”; an elderly man who hadn’t been diagnosed with dementia but starting “acting weirdly,” for whom the Reverend diagnosed as looking for “a way out of his soul.” These sad, resonating stories are sometimes told with humor, and show another unique quality of the narrator: she lies if she can offer someone a way out of their soul.

Some stories remind the chaplain of her own past, so that’s sprinkled in here too, often in magical moments like her childhood dream of “me and my soul are riding our planet,” escaping daily life to someplace heavenly. Bits and pieces of glimpsing the light, reminding us there’s more to life than what we see.

Two important characters who are not patients move us because they’re men the chaplain falls in love with during these soul-searching years working in the darkness of night, feeling how much she deserves to be loved for who she is. Of the two, Plummy (he loves plums) is the one we feel she’s meant to be with; she sensed he was an “old soul” at nineteen, she approaching thirty. Fascinated by near-death experiences, they were two souls who walked together. But she was concerned about their age differences, the fairness, the morality, of impacting his life at the cusp of a career as a neuroscientist when she was settled in her own. Their relationship remains a source of unresolved angst.

It’s been five years since Ellen Cooney wrote her last, soulful novel, The Mountaintop School for Dogs and other Chances (reviewed here).

In her novel about rescuing abused dogs, Cooney made it perfectly clear her heart broke when dogs were treated cruelly. This time, she’s made it perfectly clear she wasn’t finished with making sure we understood that dogs have souls too; souls that can rescue people like the hospital souls rescued the chaplain.

The most likely version of which two souls are referred to in the title is a tribute to the indelible memory of a therapy dog, “an animal with dignity,” whom she does name, Bobo Boy. The two did go walking one night together. It can also refer to another therapy dog, Eddie, she goes walking with, more like flying at the end of this strong boxer’s leash, in a dream-like scene, reflective of the ghost of Bobo Boy. The souls of dogs with therapeutic abilities, and the bond between humans and dogs, adds a unique touch to this collective story about respecting the dignity of all living souls.

Cooney owns three dogs, and now lives on an island in Maine. We can picture her peacefully walking with her dogs buoyed by so much beauty, feeling lightness and hopefulness. She’s found a poetic, literary way to share that with us.


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